Can You Eat Fish Without Harming the Environment?

Many of us these days are trying their best to be more environmentally conscious. More and more, consumers and customers are researching the impacts of where their food comes from and what sort of repercussions, if any, it has on the world we live in. Thankfully, many of today’s meat and agricultural industries are also mirroring that concern, changing daily to better suit customer concerns and lessening their footprint of carbon and waste in the world too.

Those who are attempting to eliminate or reduce their meat intake often turn to fish and seafood to become their new, main source of much-needed protein. Some do this under the well-meant belief that eating fish may not cause the same environmental impact than eating other sources of animal protein. Seafood consumption has drastically increased and has become a wildly popular menu item, whether at home or eating out.

The question of whether eating fish is bad for the environment can be both yes and no, or, “it depends.”

In general, the industrial beef production and farmed catfish have been noted to be one of the most taxing on our environment, while small, wild-caught catfish and farmed mollusks like oysters, mussels and scallops have the lowest impact—according to studies and analysis.

From the authors of a study that appeared in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in 2018, the authors have taken a thorough look at the environmental impacts of different types of animal protein production.

In the study, based on nearly 10 years of analysis, the authors reviewed hundreds of published life-cycle records of various types of animal meat production which also looked at environmental impacts at all stages of meat production.

What it boils down to when eating fish is where it comes from, how it was caught, and how it was produced.

Comparisons of Protein Production

The study used four broad measurements to compare the impacts across many types of animal meat production: farm-raised seafood (aquaculture), livestock farming, and seafood caught in the wild. The measurements noted were energy use, greenhouse gas, and excess nutrients—fertilizer for example.

Researchers used the food standard amount of 40 grams of protein, the recommended daily value to calculate how much energy was produced per that 40 grams.

Clear winners that had low to minimal ecological impact were:

  • Farmed shellfish and mollusks, also known as Bivalvia. (Oysters, scallops, clams, ark clams, mussels, and cockles.)
  • Capture fisheries (harvesting of naturally occurring marine resources) such as sardines, mackerel, and herring also produced lower emissions.
  • Catfish aquaculture (farming) and beef produced 20 times more harmful emissions than farmed mollusks.
  • Mollusk aquaculture (farming) absorbed excess nutrients that are harmful to the ecosystem. Capture fisheries scored better than aquaculture, and livestock beef rated poor.

This study also considered how much fuel was used by fishing boats and found the most inconsistency here. Depending on what type of net, what type of fish, and the fuel needed could be excessive factors in adding to greenhouse gases or lower. For instance, pot fisheries for lobster used a great deal of fuel and had a higher impact than small school fishing.

So, What is the Answer?

Simply put, the choice is what matters. What you choose to eat and then research as to where it comes from ultimately matters as to whether the fish you consume will impact the environment.

The first step in understanding if the seafood you are eating is bad or good for the environment depends on how it was caught, first. Second, what tools were used for catching the seafood and how it is produced.

Avoid, if possible, farmed catfish, lobster, and shrimp. Wild-caught is best not just for being environmentally conscious but they taste better, too.

In the case of fish that are in danger of going extinct or are being conserved like the Bluefin Tuna or the Alaskan salmon, choose a sustainably farmed salmon or a mackerel in their place. Also attempt to avoid fisheries that use hormones to ensure the fish is safe for you, too.

What Else Can be Done to Ensure Fish Lessens Environmental Impact?

There are some simple things you can do to make sure your fish is not bad for the environment:

  1. Make sure the seafood you are buying comes from a trusted, experienced source. Your local fish or meat market should be able to tell you exactly where your fish comes from. A good butcher should be able to tell you how your fish was caught. Don’t be afraid to ask where your seafood has been caught.
  2. Eat wild-caught fish. Wild-caught fish have a much smaller climate footprint.
  3. Look for Friend of the Sea or the ASC (The Aquaculture Stewardship Council) symbol on your fish. These labels have begun certifying fish farms that adhere to environmental standards.
  4. Choosing seafood from sustainable sources more often can encourage larger chains and supermarkets to demand it from their suppliers, in turn, helping support the market for seafood caught or farmed in the most environmentally safest way possible. It also helps support local fishing communities.
  5. Vary your seafood intake. There are hundreds of different species of fish being caught yet most Americans purchase and eat only a very few. By trying new seafood and alternative species you give seafood species that may be threatened time to recover.

There are much healthier, environmentally alternatives these days to eating fish that weren’t available before, giving consumers the ability to make their own choices of what seafood to purchase and knowing where it comes from. More tools and more information are now available as science continues to make headway and changes to the way fish farms work and the way we fish our oceans.

Lowering your dairy intake, your beef intake and choosing seafood from sustainable farms makes consuming seafood a positive impact on the environment instead of a negative.

Suggestions for eco-friendly seafood:

  • Scallops
  • Mussels
  • Clams
  • Anchovies
  • Sardines
  • Herring
  • Pollock
  • Hake
  • Coley
  • Mackerel
  • Rainbow trout
  • Haddock
  • Oysters

Sources:

  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19476337.2018.1475423
  • https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.1822